On Saturday, Beijing signaled it was going to take Taiwan soon, one way or another. As the international order continues to crumble — and as the pace of de-globalization quickens — the risk of invasion rises dramatically.
The Chinese central government, in its Work Report released Saturday, declared it was committed to “resolving the Taiwan question in the new era.” This is the first time since Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012 that this annual document included a time frame for annexing the island republic.
So what is meant by “new era”?
Xi started using the phrase in November, and he has partially defined it in prior statements. “We should not allow this problem to be passed down from one generation to the next,” he said in 2019. In short, Xi, almost 69, believes he will be the one to incorporate Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China.
At the moment, Taiwan is self-governing, formally calling itself the Republic of China. Xi’s communist state has in fact never ruled the island. Now that President Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine, many think Xi will move to forcibly annex Taiwan.
Recent events, it appears, have emboldened China’s regime. Despite the West’s overwhelming power advantage over Russia — the combined economy of the U.S., EU, and the U.K. is more than 25 times the size of Russia’s — Moscow invaded anyway, showing the complete breakdown of deterrence and the feebleness of Western leadership. Xi Jinping must have noticed this failure.
Moreover, the inability of America and Europe to completely ban dealings with Russia must also encourage Xi. China, he knows, has escaped penalty for assorted bad conduct during his rule —pushing illicit fentanyl, downplaying COVID-19, genocide, and slavery to name just the most malicious acts — and must believe he can after a Taiwan invasion intimidate others into not imposing costs. Many countries, Xi knows, are too dependent on China to take him on.
Xi also may think he has to act fast. China, after all, will be the biggest victim perhaps of the Ukraine invasion’s most important long-term effect: the end of the current era of globalization.
Globalization has been kind to the Communist Chinese regime. China used this period of prolonged peace to make itself an integral part of supply chains spanning the world, putting the country in the center of the global economy. Xi was not content with economic success, however. He has used this favored position to coerce other countries into doing what he wants.
De-globalization — the cutting of trade links — will undermine Xi Jinping’s ability to intimidate. As countries become less dependent on China, Beijing will inevitably lose clout.
That gives China an incentive to act against Taiwan quickly, before Beijing loses influence.
Before the Ukraine invasion, the world was already in the early stages of de-globalization. Analysts expect 2022 will see a decline in international commerce from last year’s record of $28.5 trillion. The 2021 result was boosted by one-time government stimulus measures, and resulting commodity price increases further inflated trade statistics. These factors, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development stated in February, will “abate.”
The U.N. pointed to supply-chain disruptions, which are forcing countries to regionalize, giving preference to trade with neighbors. “Efforts to shorten supply chains and to diversify suppliers,” the U.N. warned, “could affect global trade patterns during 2022.”
In a turbulent world, countries will locate production inside their borders or at least to locations closer to home. China can thank Russia. The Russian invasion ended decades of general calm and constant geopolitical turmoil will make global supply chains, stretching all the way to China, unviable. In the new era, companies making products far from consumers risk not being able to transport goods to store shelves.
The Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German think tank, says global trade is already dropping due to the Ukraine invasion.
Declining trade also increases the risk of more war. “Does trade increase or decrease the likelihood of conflict?” Samuel Huntington, the late Harvard political scientist, asked in his landmark work, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.” “The assumption that it reduces the probability of war between nations is, at a minimum, not proven, and much evidence exists to the contrary.”
Huntington pointed out that expectation drives events. “Economic interdependence fosters peace, only ‘when states expect that high trade levels will continue into the foreseeable future.’” If, however, trade partners “do not expect high levels of interdependence to continue, war is likely to result,” he wrote.
Last March, Admiral Philip Davidson, while in charge of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned in Senate testimony that China could move against Taiwan “during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
“Taiwan is and always has been on the front lines of the Chinese Communist Party’s military ambitions,” Jonathan Ward, author of “China’s Vision of Victory,” told me. “With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the world is already witnessing the horrific effects of a revanchist view of history. The Communist Party has been even clearer about its ambitions than the Kremlin, and it has shown us for years the militarist character of ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.’ The world must prepare accordingly.”
The Communist Party at the moment is inward-focused, as Xi Jinping seeks a precedent-breaking third term as general secretary. Observers expect the ruling organization to decide on Xi’s future at the 20th National Congress, which will be held, if tradition holds, this fall.
China, therefore, is unlikely to launch any major military offense against Taiwan while the Party decides its future leadership.
After leadership issues are settled, however, all bets regarding Taiwan are off. If Xi gets his third term, which most analysts assume will happen, he will substantially up the pressure on the island republic.
After all, he has staked his legitimacy on annexing it.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.
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